(This is the first half of a half-finished review. I’m hoping going ahead and posting it will prod me into writing the rest.)
The word for Deceit is “functional.” It does not tell an exciting story. It does not explore characters in great detail. It doesn’t say much about the human condition. Deceit was conceived and written solely to advance the editorial goals of Peter Darvill-Evans, New Adventures mastermind.
He’s testing his own editorial guidelines. He’s reintroducing Ace. He’s filling in the New Adventures’ future history. He’s cleaning up and retconning the last few books’ worth of characterization oddities. And he’s explaining his theory of time travel. As Darvill-Evans says in his afterward/apologia, “That’s a lot of functions for one medium-length novel to perform. I hope you didn’t notice it creaking under the weight of so many burdens.”
Deceit creaks. Understandably. Any writer juggling five such unwieldy objects hasn’t got a lot of spare attention for the things that make a book, y’know, good. The surprise is that Deceit is adequate. Deceit defined the absolute minimum acceptable standard for a New Adventure. So I guess as a model New Adventure it was a success.
As a novel… not so much. Deceit is 300 pages of retcon bolted to fight scene glued to exposition, with just enough plot for a brief novella. Still, there are a couple of things you’ll remember later. There’s the galaxy’s first surrealist planetary defense system: an asteroid topiary garden of screaming faces patrolled by a giant female head who morphs into an angry squid. And, dammit, why can’t we have security services like this in real life? Forget guys in badges–from now on banks and museums must be patrolled by squads of sad clowns who dance and carry whistling dish mops and at any sign of threat merge to form Voltron!
Less blissfully, Darvill-Evans snuck in a half-timid, half-puerile lesbian dominatrix henchwoman sublot. For no discernible reason. Unless he was trying to make us feel queasily embarrassed for him, in which case mission accomplished, Peter. I have to wash my brain now.
So with summary judgement out of the way… how well does Deceit accomplish its other tasks?
The last several books had proffered a weird, inconsistent Doctor. He’d all but kidnapped Ace when, at the end of Nightshade, she showed signs of wanting to leave. Both had apparently forgotten all about it by the next book. He seemed to forget Bernice even existed for the first half of Transit. He bowed in awed respect before a humorless sociopath in The Pit.
After Deceit he settled down. Why, I don’t know–better communication between the authors, maybe, or better editorial control. Either way, great. The thing is, Darvill-Evans wanted to fix the problem retroactively. So he spent way too many pages on a great big retcon.
(What’s a retcon, you may ask? It’s short for Retroactive Continuity, and it means Everything You Know Is Wrong. Superficially a retcon resembles a sudden plot twist, a surprise revelation… but it wasn’t planned. It’s a jury-rigged bolt-on slapped up to fix some perceived flaw in an existing narrative. The most famous retcon in literature is Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in which we learn the lucrative Great Detective never tumbled off that waterfall after all.)
The retcon was, of course, doomed. Left alone, the Doctor’s loopiness would pass from memory. Explaining it creates something memorably stupider than the original problem: an overcomplicated plot involving some semi-intelligent matter infecting the TARDIS, and the Doctor’s mind, during the repairs in Witch Mark. Dull enough in itself. But the congenital ill-conceivedness reaches out to infect other books: Deceit claims the Doctor, as part of his plan, influenced Ace’s decision to leave–which not only cheapens the climax of Love and War, but lowers the readers’ estimation of Ace’s independence and agency.
This was not the greatest way to reintroduce her to the audience. Not that she’d been away long. Probably Darvill-Evans didn’t want to leave the bad blood between the Doctor and Ace to clot. Maybe he also wanted to ease the audience into the idea of new companions. In any case, he took the opportunity to give her an overhaul. The NAs skewed older than the TV series. It made sense to give Ace three more years of life experience; like Bernice, she could be an identification figure for a new audience. (A few years later the EDAs would do the same thing–right down to the three years–to Sam Jones.)
During that time, Ace had military training and worked as a mercenary. This was a reasonable, even predictable, career move given what we’d seen on screen: a character whose first instinct in any situation was to fight. We’re talking about the one TARDIS crew member who regularly carried explosives, here.
But having reinvented Ace as a woman of action, action is all Darvill-Evans gives her to do. Lots of action. Shooting, jumping, flying around in spaceships… page after indistinguishable page of action. Meanwhile, the villain’s henchlady watches her on a monitor exclaiming how wonderful Ace is (“Isn’t she superb?”), as though to convince the readers. They weren’t convinced. The fans seemed to think violence defined the character. And as time wore on there were real problems for the fans to react to, because so did some of the writers.
So we got a good chunk of fans who assumed that Ace was a hardened borderline sociopath. And a good chunk of authors who shared the assumption and gave the fans something genuine to complain about. They allowed violence to define the character. Deceit could have prevented it, if it had given her something to do besides shoot things.